Sincerity by A.C. Benson

"We pretend to be bluff and gruff, when we are really only shy and amiable"

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield
"Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, was forever asserting his humility; but as soon as a man becomes proud of being so humble, he is humble no longer". (Print from The Bookman, February 1912; Print Collector/Getty Images)

Arthur Christopher Benson, who served as housemaster at Eton College and later as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, was the author of more than 70 books, including biographies, novels, and collections of essays. Yet he is probably best known today as the author of the lyrics to the British patriotic hymn "Land of Hope and Glory."

Professor Keith Wilson has characterized Benson's familiar essays as "lay sermons, musings on spiritual, aesthetic, and existential matters directed always toward salutary, and often consolatory, ends" (Encyclopedia of the Essay, 1997). "Sincerity," an extended definition from the collection Along the Road, 1913), is one of Benson's less sentimental and more thought-provoking essays.


by A.C. Benson

1 Sincerity is one of the virtues which we all admire when we see it, but which is very hard to practise deliberately, for the simple reason that it disappears, like humility, the moment that it becomes self-conscious. Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, was forever asserting his humility; but as soon as a man becomes proud of being so humble, he is humble no longer. Similarly, the man who is preoccupied with his own sincerity, is well on his way to become insincere, because his sincerity has become a pose. The essence of sincerity is simplicity, and simplicity conscious of itself is one of the most complicated things in the world. The old definition of sincere used to be sine cera, "without wax," and it was supposed to be a metaphor from honey strained off pure and translucent from the comb. A pretty, though wholly fanciful, etymology; but the idea is a true one—the rich, authentic, crystalline, fragrant substance of the soul, without any cloudy or clogging intermixture; it would be simple enough if all souls were like that!

2 But the difficulty for most of us is that we are painfully conscious of a duality, even a multiplicity, of elements, a sad jumble of qualities, even of opposite qualities, stored in our spirits, like the contents of some ancient lumber-room. What is the practical issue of it all? If we want to be sincere—and it is, a quality that we all admire and most of us desire—does it mean that we are to exhibit all our wares?

If we are irritable, mean, jealous, selfish, is it sincere to parade these things, or at all events to make no effort to conceal them? Are we bound to say, like the Master of Ballantrae, in words which contain perhaps the sincerest confession of self ever put in the mouth of a character in fiction, "I am a pretty bad fellow at bottom"? Is it hypocrisy to attempt to hide our faults? Sometimes that is the most effectual way of getting rid of them. It would be absurd to say that if a man felt irritable, he was hypocritical if he did not show it, or that if he was conscious of being of a jealous disposition, he was bound to approve and applaud instances of jealous behaviour in other people, for the sake of being consistent. The curious thing about English people is that they tend, if anything, to be hypocritical about their virtues rather than about their faults. I know several people who are ashamed of appearing to be as generous and as tender-hearted as they really are. We are naturally an emotional and a sentimental nation, and we are desperately afraid of betraying it. We like sentimental books and plays and sermons, but we are very hard on sentimental talk. We like things that make us cry, better than things that make us laugh.

John Bull, for all his top-boots and his ample waistcoat, is a very tender-hearted old fellow, and heartily dislikes to be thought so. We despise other nations for their courtesy and excitability, and think their display of emotion generally to be ridiculous and affected. Yet we ourselves are the victims of a deep-seated habit of posing. We pretend to be bluff and gruff, when we are really only shy and amiable. I had an old friend once who carried this to an almost grotesque degree. He was a friendly, rather soft-hearted man, but he got it into his head, early in life, that it was manly to be rough; he stamped about the house in enormous boots, and spoke what he called his mind on all occasions, though in reality he was only saying the sort of things that he imagined were appropriate to a man of the type that he had adopted.

I went with him once to call on a distinguished lady. He was horribly shy, and showed it by sitting down on a chair the reverse way, holding the back between his knees, and agitating it to and fro as if he were riding a rocking-horse, while he criticised the luxury of the upper classes in a highly offensive way. He desired to give the impression of being totally unembarrassed, but wholly in vain, because his behaviour was merely supposed to be the result of an almost frenzied nervousness; and, after all, it is not moral cowardice to be decorously respectful at the right time and place.

3 That is really the worst of the situation, that we do, in England, too often confuse roughness with sincerity, and offensiveness with candour; while in reality the essence of sincerity is that we should mean what we say, not that we should say all that we think. There is a story of Tennyson standing by the tea-table, while his wife and a distinguished authoress were exchanging some meaningless but harmless compliments, and gazing down upon them in silence, till a pause occurred, when he said in his most portentous tones, "What liars you women are!" That was not sincerity, but something like brutality; for after all it is no more insincere to conceal your thoughts than it is insincere to wear clothes.

4 We tend to limit the application of the word insincere almost wholly to matters of conversation, and curiously enough we limit it further almost entirely to the people who say pleasant and agreeable things.

If a man tells an unpleasant truth, we say that he is frank; if he tells a pleasant truth, we say that he flatters. The best combination of urbanity and directness I know was afforded by an old friend of mine who took a lady in to dinner, and asked her many questions about herself and her relations in a way which showed he was intimately acquainted with her performances and family traditions. She said at last smilingly, "Well, it is a pleasant surprise to find oneself so famous! How did you know all this, Mr. ---?" An insincere man would have bowed, and murmured that some people were public property, and so forth. But my friend, with a twinkle in his eye, replied, "I asked."

5 No one would, however, consider it to be insincere not to talk about anything which happened to be in his mind at the time. The difficulty rather is with people of genial and sympathetic temperament, who are apt in the excitement of the moment to say more than they mean, and to seem to undertake more than they can carry out. There are some people to whom it is absolutely natural to wish instinctively to stand well with the people in whose company they find themselves, and whose egotism takes the form not of talking about themselves, but of desiring themselves to be felt and appreciated, and to establish a personal relation with the particular people they happen to be thrown with. Some people at first sight seem to be extremely sympathetic, and the interest they feel may be temporary, but it is often at the moment quite genuine.

The disappointment comes afterwards, when one finds that they have forgotten all about one, and make no attempt to follow up the relations which seemed to be happily established. Personally, I am glad of civility and interest and sympathy on any terms, and I do not claim an indefinite continuance of such favours. One should take exactly what people are prepared to give, and not demand more. But it is a difficult matter to know what people who suffer from a plenitude of superficial sympathy ought to do. It is difficult to advise them to cultivate an indifferent and unsympathetic attitude. They must, however, expect to have to pay for the pleasure they both give and receive; they must be prepared to meet further claims, and to be criticised as insincere if they cannot meet them. "Too sweet to be wholesome," as an old Scotch keeper said to me of a lady whose adjectives outran her emotions. Yet the sincerity or the insincerity of such behaviour does greatly depend upon the motive that lies behind it. If there is in reserve a genuine good-will, and a sincere instinct for desiring to see and to make others happy, the unfavourable criticism is rarely made. I know more than one public man who has the blessed knack of making the most insignificant person in his company feel that he is the object of his sincere and active benevolence; and such persons are no more blamed for not prolonging their attentions in absence, than the sun is blamed for not shining at the bottom of a coal-pit. One feels that the sun is in his place, and can be depended upon to shine at the right season and under the right conditions. But the people who do get labelled insincere are those whose aim is not the happiness of other people, but their own comfort; who are sympathetic because they want to give an impression of sympathy and kindness for their own satisfaction. And these are the hardest of all to enlighten, because they do not recognise that there is anything amiss, or perceive that their action is based on selfishness; and even if they do realise it, it is very hard for them to act otherwise, because one becomes unselfish through impulse and not through argument. One can cure oneself of a fault by discipline, but no amount of discipline will create a generous virtue.

6 Sometimes the world is startled by the revelation of the private wrong-doing of men of great outward respectability; of course if that wrong-doing is deliberate, and the outward pretence of virtue a mere mask donned for convenience, there is nothing to be said; that is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. But a man who yields to evil from weakness does not necessarily desire to sin, and still less does he wish others to do so; a man who does wrong may be most sincerely on the side of the right, and even more intensely than others, if, as may well be the case, he realises the misery of his sin. Sincerity does not necessitate that every one should make public confession of everything, or that no one should ever dare to recommend a virtue which he cannot always practise. If we all lowered our proclaimed standard to the level of our private practice, we should merely countenance and encourage evil. Of course the truest sincerity is to amend our faults, and not to preach anything which we do not honestly try to practise. And even in the worst cases of all, it is in itself a comfort to recognise that, as an old writer says, hypocrisy is, after all, the homage paid by vice to virtue.

7 What really makes all the difference is a deep-seated and conscious singleness of aim. A man may have many and patent faults. He may act inconsistently and even unworthily on occasions, and yet may be perfectly sincere, if he is not trying to fight on both sides in the battle. Failure matters little; it is the intention that shines through. The man who cannot be sincere is the man who gets all the pleasure that he safely can out of evil, and professes a belief in what is good, for the sake of the convenience it brings him.

8 And therefore, as I say, sincerity is a virtue that can hardly be directly cultivated. It is rather like a flower which follows naturally and in due course, if the right seed be sown.


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